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Analysis

Minkah Fitzpatrick vs. A 2020 1st Round Pick

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With the 18th selection in the 2020 draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select…

Okay not really.

When the Steelers did the unthinkable and traded their 1st round pick in this year’s draft for Minkah Fitzpatrick last September they made a simple calculation. They badly needed a safety after getting torched through the air in their first two games and there was a young and talented free safety available with years of control.

They pulled the trigger and Minkah Fitzpatrick was a Steeler. Going the other way was a 1st and 5th round pick in 2020 and a 6th round pick in 2021. The Steelers received a 4th round pick in 2020 and a 7th round selection in 2021.

Since then, both Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have publicly stated that they consider Minkah their 1st round round pick in 2020.

Was it worth it? Will we ever be able to really make that assessment?

Let’s dive deeper.

The Steelers were at least somewhat confident that their 1st round pick wouldn’t be too high. Maybe a risky calculation given that Roethlisberger had already gone down with an injury at the time they made their move. If they were staring down a 0-16, 1-15 season, they wouldn’t have made the move. But they knew they had lots of skill to work with and didn’t think making the playoffs was out of the question. And they were (mostly) right. The Steelers went 8-8, missed the playoffs by a game and ended up only having to surrender the 18th pick.

In Minkah Fitzpatrick the Steelers got a supremely talented player, one that they had coveted coming out Alabama, but didn’t have the draft capital to pick in 2018. They got as close to a sure thing as you can get, a player with a proven track record in the NFL. Even better, they got a player that turned out to be an All-Pro. The number of All-Pro rookies in 2019? None. In fact, only three were even Pro Bowl selections, although that’s a designation that means less and less each year.

Is it possible for rookies to become All-Pros in their first year? Sure.

Of the players selected with Minkah in 2018, six have made an All-Pro team, with Quentin Nelson, Derwin James, Michael Dickson and Darius Leonard making it their rookie year. That’s four players selected in the entire draft that made an All-Pro team their rookie year. One of which is a punter and one was a 2nd round selection.

In 2017 just two rookies were name as 1st team All-Pros, Arizona safety Budda Baker and Detroit return specialist Jamal Agnew.

Will anyone in this year’s draft be more impactful than Minkah Fitzpatrick? Using Pro Football Reference’s approximate value numbers, the answer is almost assuredly not. Especially if Fitzpatrick can come close to repeating his 2019 performance. Last season Minkah scored a 19 AV (14 AV with the Steelers in 14 games), the highest rated rookie in 2019 was Kyler Murray at 14. The highest rated rookie on the defensive side was Joey Bosa at 11 AV.

In 2018, 2nd round pick Darius Leonard lead all rookies with an 18 AV. Saquon Barkley and Quentin Nelson each scored a 14. Safety Derwin James had 11 AV.

Heading back to 2017, Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara had 15 AV respectively. The highest rated defensive player was Budda Baker at 9 AV.

In the last 20 years, the only rookie to score higher than Fitzpatrick’s 19 was fifth overall pick Patrick Peterson, who scored a 20 in 2011. Additionally, over that same span, the only defensive 1st round picks to score higher than Fitzpatrick’s Steelers only AV of 14 was 49’ers linebacker Patrick Willis, who had a 17 in 2007 and Detroit 2nd overall pick Ndamukong Suh, who had a 15 in 2010. Second round picks Darious Leonard and Steelers linebacker Kendrell Bell also scored higher than Fitzpatrick’s Steelers only AV of 14, but not higher than his full season approximate value of 19.

Will Fitzpatrick be able to repeat his 2018 performance? That remains to be seen. But there’s a very good chance that no matter what, he’ll be better than any rookie selected in this year’s NFL Draft. And that’s what the Steelers were looking for. A player to help them now, not in the future.

With Fitzpatrick, they may have gotten the best of both worlds.

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